Perot praises faculty doctors, president

Ross Perot used the "bully pulpit" of two special events - a prestigious national awards ceremony in March and a featured hour-long "Larry King Live" program on CNN in July - to focus the nation's attention on UT Southwestern's leading research program on Gulf War syndrome and the expert medical care delivered by the institution's faculty physicians to armed forces personnel and veterans.

Mr. Perot - who has vigorously supported the medical center's Gulf War syndrome research efforts - received the coveted Eisenhower Award in recognition of his contributions to "liberty and national security" from the Business Executives for National Security.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Perot lauded the research of Dr. Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at UT Southwestern and holder of the U.S. Armed Forces Veterans Distinguished Chair for Medical Research, Honoring Robert Haley, M.D., and America's Gulf War Veterans. Mr. Perot began funding Dr. Haley's work in 1994 after hearing stories of soldiers who returned from the Gulf War sick or disabled for unknown reasons.

Mr. Perot credited "the medical evidence that Dr. Haley had put together" with convincing Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi in 2000 that the Gulf War veterans' ill nesses were due to more than stress.

"I certainly would want to thank Dr. Robert Haley and the president of Southwestern Medical School, Dr. [Kern] Wildenthal, for their leadership and absolute commitment to the thousands of soldiers who were wounded by chemicals in Desert Storm," Mr. Perot said. "Theirs was a long, lonely effort to provide proper care for these men and women. They were forced to work under the most difficult, challenging circumstances during a period when this serious medical problem had been labeled as stress.

"I'm not going to take the time to tell you the harassment and what-have-you Dr. Haley endured. Southwestern Medical School has more Nobel Prize winners than any other medical school in the world. They didn't have to put up with all this. But, they cared about the men and they did, and Dr. Wildenthal and Dr. Haley, who was leading the research, will always be my heroes because they stood on principle."

Mr. Perot added, "I want to particularly thank Southwestern Medical School's great team of doctors and staff members who worked tirelessly to provide the finest possible medical care for our wounded soldiers. Cyndi Bassel, [vice president for external affairs], is our guardian angel who I can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Cyndi will always work with the Southwestern Medical School team to identify the most talented doctors to work on that particular problem - wherever they might be in the world."

In 1997 Mr. Perot established the Cyndi Bassel Guardian Angel Award, which recognizes non-physician personnel who go beyond the call of duty to provide exemplary service and care to patients.

In a videotaped segment shown at the awards ceremony, Ms. Bassel commented on the impetus behind the establishment of the award. "He wanted to recognize people who are behind the scenes to help these patients and families -- the unsung heroes. I was flattered that he named [the award] for me, but it really should be the Ross Perot Guardian Angel Award," she said.

Mr. Perot was celebrated at the awards ceremony by more than 1,650 guests, including all of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, several members of Congress, Medal of Honor recipients, Vietnam POWs and other beneficiaries of Mr. Perot's efforts. Those familiar with the Pentagon said it is unprecedented for all of the Joint Chiefs to attend an event outside Washington, D.C., to honor an individual.

In another interview shown at the ceremony, Dr. Wildenthal detailed Mr. Perot's commitment to veteran affairs and medical research. "When somebody has done something that he appreciates, he never forgets it," Dr. Wildenthal said. "Ross Perot is concerned about people who can't get help any other way."

In the 1960s the founder of Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and Perot Systems became known as a great champion of armed forces personnel by working tirelessly on behalf of prisoners of war in Vietnam.

After both the Vietnam War and the 1990s' Persian Gulf War, as well as in peacetime, Mr. Perot helped scores of American veterans obtain medical care at UT Southwestern and elsewhere - often underwriting the costs personally.

The CNN program - during which host Larry King celebrated Mr. Perot's "35 years of extraordinary service to the brave men and women of the U.S. armed forces" - also featured a videotaped interview with Dr. Haley and highlighted the research breakthroughs he has made with the help of grants from the Perot Foundation.

Since 1997, with Dr. Thomas Kurt and other colleagues at UT Southwestern and other universities, Dr. Haley has published a series of major papers outlining discoveries about Gulf War syndrome, relating it to neurotoxic brain damage from wartime chemical exposures, uncovering a genetic predisposition for the injuries and identifying diagnostic approaches. He has briefed the nation's top military and political leaders and testified before Congress on the syndrome. When the secretary of Veterans Affairs formed a Veterans Affairs advisory committee on Gulf War illnesses in 2002, he appointed Dr. Haley as a member.

The Dallas businessman's Perot Foundation committed $20 million to UT Southwestern for the period of 1988 to 1995 and $23.3 million for 1996 to 2003 to strengthen training for medical scientists and enhance biomedical research in laboratories of Nobel laureates and their colleagues.

The foundation currently provides $3.25 million per year in support of the medical center's research and education programs. In 2000 the foundation also contributed $1 million to establish an endowed U.S. Armed Forces Distinguished Chair in honor of Dr. Haley.